Bees in a bonnet

January 14, 2000

Jean Aitchison's review ("Getting back to nature-nurture", THES, January 7) dismisses Geoffrey Sampson's argument about whether language is biologically in-built, but for all the wrong reasons.

She cites communication among honey bees as a parallel case. But it is not. Human beings have something bees, as far we know, lack: historically developed and culturally transmitted traditions. Aitchison suggests that Sampson's mistake is going "over the top" in favour of viewing language as nurture not nature.

Her solution is somewhere in between. Wrong again. As long as linguists debate in this antiquated way (or any of the genetic terminology), neither side will throw light on what makes language different from other forms of animal communication.

Roy Harris

Emeritus professor of general linguistics, University of Oxford

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